EDMONTON -- Two days after Alberta recorded a record number of daily COVID-19 cases, Premier Jason Kenney was focused on highlighting more recent data that he said shows public health restrictions are working.
“It looks like we've flattened the curve. Not time yet to celebrate but the important thing is we've stopped the growth,” said Kenney, who was visibly pleased to see lower than usual case numbers for the second straight day.
Speaking to CTV News Edmonton anchor Geoff Hastings during a half-hour long year-end interview, the premier answered a range of mostly pandemic-related questions, including about his government’s handling of the COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, unflattering poll numbers and Alberta’s vaccine rollout.
THE UP-AND-DOWN CURVE
The day of the interview, Wednesday, Dec. 16, Alberta announced 1,270 new cases of COVID-19.
The day before, it was 1,338. The positivity rate was 7.3 per cent after reaching double digits in early December. It was a pair of encouraging days following a Monday that saw the province announce 1,887 new cases, a single-day record (note: Monday’s number was later reconciled to 1,865). The week before fluctuated, averaging 1,658 cases per day.
For Kenney, it’s a sign that public health restrictions, the most stringent of which were introduced eight days before the interview, have been effective. But it’s the restrictions Kenney announced Nov. 24, which included a ban on indoor social gatherings, that he said is leading to the recent decrease in cases.
“We're heading in the right direction, based on the policies that we adopted in November,” he said.
Kenney has faced widespread criticism, including from Alberta physicians, for not adopting stricter measures sooner. Doctors said the delay caused a preventable increase in COVID-19-related hospital and intensive care admissions — the latter of which have surged nearly 500 per cent since November 1.
On Dec. 7, the day before the newest measures were announced, Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said she found steadily rising COVID-19 numbers “extremely troubling” and that the Nov. 24 measures were “unlikely to be sufficient to bend the curve downwards."
Nine days after those comments, Kenney, who acknowledges the criticism he has received, said he believes his government acted in a timely fashion.
“I think the current plateauing of numbers confirms that we did,” said Kenney.
The next day, Alberta recorded 1,571 cases, an increase from the day before.
Asked about recent polls that show his popularity second lowest among premiers in Canada, Kenney said he does not get distracted by polling and that he believed the numbers are a result of a “complex public opinion environment."
“In most of the provinces you've got people who are pro restriction,” said Kenney.
“Here we've got a very large chunk of the population who are opposed to any of the restrictive measures that we've taken.”
Asked if he would do anything differently regarding the pandemic response plan, Kenney mentioned two things:
The premier regrets classifying businesses as ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ back in March, saying it was a mistake that only benefitted large box stores. Kenney has publicly expressed this regret on multiple occasions.
Kenney wishes the government had introduced this COVID-19 support program, announced Dec. 15, earlier.
That was the premier’s immediate response when asked whether he will be receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
“But I'll take my turn, when it comes up, probably, with the general population,” he said.
Currently, Alberta is projecting to vaccinate the general population in the fall, but the ability to procure the requisite doses is in the hands of the federal government.
Still, Kenney is optimistic the timeline will move up.
“There is a good chance that we'll be able to accelerate the vaccine program. There are a number of other vaccines that are in development and undergoing trials. If they succeed, and they are then approved by Health Canada, we'll be getting more vaccines, more quickly.”
Kenney said a group of “hardcore anti-vaxxers” is telling him to take the vaccine immediately to prove it’s not dangerous, something he is not willing to jump the queue to do.
“I think it's important for those who are skeptical to know that we're not going to coerce people into taking the vaccine," he said.
“So, we'll be changing the law in February to remove the power of mandatory vaccination, just to try to relieve some of the political pressure coming from folks who are against vaccines.”
Staring down a projected $21.8-billion deficit due to what Kenney calls the “triple whammy” of the pandemic, global economic factors, and a decline in energy prices, the premier is still feeling optimistic about next year.
“There's going to be a lot of pent up energy, a lot of savings, and people are going to want to go out there and spend and support those businesses that have been struggling," Kenney predicted.
“And I really believe you're going to see, especially in the latter half of 2021, a strong recovery in our economy.”
Kenney believes the continued vaccine rollout will trigger a “psychological shift” in behaviours as we head towards the fall of 2021.
“I think the vaccines showing up now before Christmas shows people that the end is within sight.”